The MAC is, for all intents and purposes, a socialist utopia. Sure, star power reigns at times (Dan LeFevour's Central Michigan teams won three MAC titles) but underdogs can come out of nowhere -- Akron and Buffalo have each won as many conference titles as Northern Illinois over the last 15 years -- and just about everybody has spent at least a little time at or near the top of the conference's power structure. Of the current MAC teams not named UMass (which hasn't played a conference game yet), only two have not played in at least one MAC Championship Game: Kent State and Eastern Michigan.
One can experience crazy ups and downs in the MAC. Central Michigan won 12 games in 2009 and a combined six in 2010-11. Akron won a MAC title in 2005 and hasn't had a winning record since. Northern Illinois had a winning record for seven straight seasons, then went 2-10 in 2007 … then won 22 games in 2010-11. Eastern Michigan, on the other hand, has just had downs. Since Jim Harkema led them to four straight winning seasons and a 1987 California Bowl, the Former Hurons have had one winning record in 22 years (6-5, with no bowl, in 1995) and never won more than even four games in a season between 1996-2010. In last year's preview, I had to work not to use the word "hopeless" more than about 10 times. Like Dewayne Walker at New Mexico State, former Louisville and Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English took on a thankless, nearly impossible job when he was hired as EMU head coach in December 2008, and he was rewarded with just two wins in his first 24 contests.
But then, a funny thing happened: Eastern Michigan became competitive and, dare I say, a bit salty. Despite some poor turnovers luck, the Eagles began the season 5-3 (admittedly with two wins over FCS teams) and had a chance to win all four of their November games. That they finished one game short of bowl eligibility was disappointing -- I adopted EMU and openly rooted for them each week in my Numerical series (examples here, here and here) -- but almost beside the point. For the first time in about 15 years, EMU was not a sure win. They were blown out only once in conference play, and despite some losses on the defensive side of the ball, they can actually find reasons to be optimistic heading into the 2012 season. That he has given hope to the hopeless means English has done one hell of a job in Ypsilanti; but they've already come this far … they might as well come a little further.
In 1987, Eastern Michigan went 10-2, won the MAC, and knocked off San Jose State in the California Bowl. In the 23 years that have followed, EMU has managed to win a combined 10 games over two seasons just twice -- in 1988-89 (13 wins) and 1994-95 (11 wins). Since 1995, their best two-year win total is eight (2004-05). This is a fancy way of saying EMU has been next to hopeless for quite a while.
In 2010, they were ... hopeless. On defense, anyway. The offense began to show signs of life in Ron English's second season, but the D still needs some work. In the same way that this car still needs some work. Or the ending to Pay It Forward. […]
[T]here's nowhere to go but up here. Skydiving Ron English has had almost no success whatsoever in his first two years, but this job has been, in recent decades, a coaching graveyard. They have been the second-worst team in the country over the last five years, and English has only been there for two years. The offense took legitimate steps forward, and while the Eagles probably won't contend for bowl eligibility by any means, there is just enough to like here to assume that they'll get to three or four wins, demonstrable progress, in English's third season.
As it turns out, I was not optimistic enough about the Eagles. They looked quite average in beating Alabama State just 14-7, but after avoiding complete humiliation against Michigan and Penn State, things got interesting. Three close wins sandwiched a blowout loss to Toledo, and when they beat Buffalo by 13 points in mid-November (which followed a crushing, last-second loss to Ball State), they were 4-2 in conference for just the second time since 1999. They lost at both Kent State and eventual MAC champion Northern Illinois by just six points to end the season.
Not surprisingly, the F/+ numbers weren't incredibly high on EMU, but its No. 97 ranking was its best since 2005, and growth is growth. The offense actually regressed considerably, but the defense rose from the dead, and it almost earned them bowl eligibility.
In 2010, riding a run-heavy attack, EMU surged from 95th in Off. F/+ to 78th. With a nice rushing quarterback in Alex Gillett and a couple of interesting running backs, the Eagles ran 10 percent more than average on standard downs, 12 percent more on passing downs, and it worked for them. They were just effective enough with the deep ball to open up running lanes, and with most key pieces returning in 2011, it was not difficult to see them succeeding at the same level, or even improving.
Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out that way. Gillett was still rather effective with his legs, but after losing two three-year starters on the line, he couldn't find any protection whatsoever. Perhaps because they had one of the worst sack rates in the country (117th in Adj. Sack Rate), they doubled down on the run and ended up a bit too predictable. They fell from 78th to 104th in Off. F/+, from 80th to 101st in Rushing S&P+. Gillett still gutted out some timely plays, but EMU was just too limited. Combining the 2010 offense with the 2011 defense would have gotten them to a bowl game; alas, it does not work that way.
For the second straight year, EMU returns most of its offense, however. Gillett returns for his senior season, and he still has the trifecta of junior Javonti Greene and seniors Dominique White and Dominique Sherrer sharing the backfield with him. The three backs combined for 1,835 yards and 13 touchdowns over 30.8 carries per game. Greene and Sherrer in particular showed interesting big-play potential, though a bit more consistency would be a good thing. The return of six linemen with starting experience (91 career starts despite the loss of three-year starting guard Bridger Buche) will help in that regard.
A key for EMU in 2012 will be increased confidence in the passing game. EMU receivers go vertical quite often, but Gillett has to allow for them to get downfield. That, along with the fact that most of their passes come on passing downs, will obviously result in more sacks than you see in a quick-strike attack, but Gillett was sacked 8.8 percent of the time in 2011, far too much. If Gillett has time, he has some interesting weapons. Tight ends Garrett Hoskins and Tyreese Russell combined to average 15.4 yards per catch last fall, while No. 1 receiver Nick Olds averaged 14.3 (albeit with just a 55 percent catch rate). Perhaps the most interesting weapon, however, is tiny sophomore Demarius Reed, who could become quite valuable as a possession receiver. Be on the lookout for incoming freshman Quincy Jones as well; English has not exactly won many big recruiting battles, and beating West Virginia for the services of the high three-star Jones was a bit of a coup. (They snagged an interesting running back in three-star freshman Juwan Lewis as well. Improvement breeds recruiting improvement.)
That said, even if EMU is able to mix in more passing in 2012, they are a run-first, run-second team. Gillett alone attempted almost as many rushes (12.5 per game) as passes (18.1). It is their modus operandi. The line absolutely must improve, and if they do, the Eagles' four rushers must take advantage.
I tried as hard as I could to talk myself into EMU last year, and it just didn't work. I liked the offense quite a bit, but it was impossible to ignore just how awful the defense had been through most of recent history. Paul Myerberg at the great Pre-Snap Read said the following in his own EMU preview last year:
Let’s be honest: the defense won’t be good in 2011. Even if it the defense knocks off a touchdown per game off its scoring average, for example – and that’s a huge decline – the Eagles would still finish 111th in scoring, if last season’s national results held. So there’s room for improvement but only so far forward this group can go, year three under English or otherwise.
In my preview piece, I agreed wholeheartedly and even failed when I tried to come up with five reasons why EMU might not have the worst defense in the country in 2011 -- I could only come up with four.
The joke was on us. Not only did EMU's defense improve in 2011, it improved a staggering amount, from 120th to 72nd in Def. F/+. And they didn't do it with lucky bounces and turnovers. No, it just improved. From 105th to 36th in Rushing Success Rate+, 109th to 54th in Adj. Line Yards and 114th to 53rd in Rushing S&P+. From 114th to 29th (!) in Adj. Sack Rate and 120th to 99th in Passing S&P+. From 120th to 82nd on standard downs and 117th to 75th on first downs. It gameplanned better, and it executed better, period, and both English and defensive coordinator Phil Snow (former D.C. at Arizona State, UCLA and Washington) deserve heaps of credit for that.
One key to its improvement, it appears, was aggression. Their Adj. Sack Rate improved to a ridiculous degree, but it came with a price. They were far more susceptible to the big play in 2012 -- then again, who wasn't in the MAC? -- and it occasionally cost them. Still, seven different linemen, and 10 different EMU defenders overall, recorded at least 3.5 tackles for loss. The problem: of those 10 play-makers, only three return. The 2011 defense was as deep and experienced as the 2012 offense will be, and they will almost certainly regress this fall. That is, unless some newcomers can help immediately. Rush end Andy Mulumba (7.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks) and tackle Kalonji Kashama are the only returning linemen out of last year's top seven; they will need assistance from three-star junior college transfers Travis Linser and Cy Maughmer, not to mention Devin Henderson, another JUCO from the 2011 class. English is particularly high on Maughmer, but it is still difficult not to see EMU's pass rush regressing.
If EMU is once again aggressive in 2012, only they are less successful in their aggression, that will put quite a bit of pressure on a secondary that must replace both starting safeties. It is difficult to proclaim that safeties are a huge loss on a defense that allowed so many big plays, but both Willie Williams (eight tackles for loss, three passes broken up) and Latarrius Thomas were, at the very least, decent. There is no three-star help coming to town to help the secondary, but UCLA transfer (and former four-star recruit) Marlon Pollard does enter his second season. Between Pollard, Marcell Rose and sophomores Darius Scott and Kevin Johnson, there is at least some potential here. Whether it is enough to account for the losses up front, we don't know.
It is difficult to call this a bowl-or-bust season for English and company, but after last season's close call, anything less than bowl eligibility will feel at least a bit disappointing. There is only one sacrificial game on the docket -- a trip to Michigan State -- but the Eagles will have to come up big on the road to reach six wins. Home games against Illinois State, Army and Central Michigan will likely boost the win total, but trips to Ball State, Bowling Green, Ohio and Western Michigan will decide the season.
In 2010, the EMU offense surged forward while the defense regressed. In 2011, the defense improved significantly (an unexpected development) while the offense regressed (equally unexpected). In 2012, we could see another flip. The offense is too experienced not to improve, and there are interesting players in every unit. It would probably benefit the Eagles to pass a little more on standard downs and keep things a little bit less predictable (they aren't so good at running the ball that they can do it well even if you are selling out against it), but in general they should be solid on that side of the ball.
But any gains they make might be tempered by losses on the defense. If last year's success was due as much to coaching as personnel, then maybe they will be fine, but you are most likely looking at a 2012 EMU team of similar quality as 2011. If they get better turnovers luck (their minus-3.3 points of turnovers luck per game was one of the worst in the country) and win their close games, that might get them to a bowl. At least, I hope it does. English has done a wonderful job in just making EMU semi-competitive again. It would be a shame for him to miss out on taking the next step as well.
While we're here, let's watch some college football videos from SB Nation's new YouTube channel together: